NEW YORK (AP) — China’s efforts to keep obesity in check have been undermined from the inside by the food industry, according to newly published research.
A scholar of Chinese society at Harvard University traced how a group funded by Coca-Cola and other food companies enjoyed close ties to Chinese health officials. The group helped tilt the country’s obesity fight with the message that exercise matters more than dietary habits, which health advocates say is a way to deflect attention from food’s role in fueling obesity.
The International Life Sciences Institute was created in 1978 by a former Coke executive and has 17 branches around the world. In China, its small but influential branch organized obesity conferences focusing on physical activity, with speakers including Coke-funded researchers and a Coke executive, according to the papers published in The BMJ and The Journal of Public Health Policy.
A national exercise program for school children called “Happy 10 Minutes” was also modeled after a pet project of the former Coke executive who founded ILSI, the papers say. The concept might have a familiar ring for Americans. Facing criticism over its sugary drinks in the U.S., Coca-Cola in 2013 ran a TV ad showing activities that can burn the “140 happy calories” in a can of Coke. The activities included walking a dog, dancing, bowling and sharing a laugh with friends.
In another online ad in the U.S., the company showed people working off the calories in a can of Coke by riding a giant stationary bicycle as carnival music plays. The phrase “Movement is happiness” appears on screen
toward the end.
Susan Greenhalgh, the papers’ author, noted the difficultly in trying to untangle how much of China’s emphasis on exercise in recent years can be attributed to ILSI’s influence. But she said ILSI’s activities highlight the difficulty in assessing how food makers may be skewing public policy around the world.